Assault advocate to be hired by January

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • December 5, 2013

Emerson College will hire a sexual assault prevention and response advocate in mid-January, according to Robert Amelio, director of diversity education and human relations. This is a new professional position created this semester in response to student complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights asserting that the school’s handling of sexual assaults violated Title IX, the federal gender equality law.

On Oct. 9, President M. Lee Pelton emailed the Emerson community to announce the search for a sexual assault survivor advocate. Pelton’s email, and the decision to search for the employee, followed the publication of a Huffington Post’s article revealing the complaint. 

The new hire will implement Emerson’s initiative in preventing sexual assault, which includes caring for survivors, doing advocacy and education work to prevent crimes on campus, and overseeing Emerson’s new program, Sexual Assault Survivor Advocates, which was launched early in the fall semester. 

“Sexual assault is so prevalent,” said Elise Harrison, director of counseling and psychological services, and current leader of the advocate program. “It’s important to have a safe place for students to turn to so they don’t have to quietly deal with it on their own.”

Amelio is chairing the search committee for the new position. The group is made up of four administrators and one student, he said. They received over 30 applications from around the U.S. for the advocate and narrowed the group down to three candidates who will be interviewed via Skype next week, he said. After winter break, the committee will bring the final candidates to campus for in-person interviews.

Emerson wants a candidate with at least three years’ experience as a sexual assault advocate, preferably with an understanding of college campus culture, plus a master’s degree in either counseling, social work, or psychology, said Amelio.

Pelton; Sylvia Spears, vice president for diversity and inclusion; Lori Beth Way, senior advisor of academic affairs; and Alexa Jackson, Emerson’s Title IX coordinator, decided it was important to have one point of contact for survivors — someone to connect survivors to all the resources both at Emerson and in the community, said Spears. The job description was written, and the application was posted to the school’s website in October.

“We are aware that sexual assault is happening on campus and we want to do everything we can to protect students,” said Amelio. “Having a position like this is one key way of doing that.”

Sarita Nadkarni, a junior visual and media arts major, said she was part of the federal complaint against the college. She said she was raped in her Piano Row dormitory room on March 12, 2013. 

Nadkarni said when she reported her case to the school, she felt she was interrogated instead of supported.

“I’m hoping the advocate will help with the emotional support that’s needed,” she said, “instead of being so clinical in terms of doing everything by the book, or with no real sympathy and a disregard for the experience of a sexual assault survivor.”

The new employee will report to Spears, and work closely with Emerson’s Office of Counseling and Psychological Services, said Amelio.

Spears is not on the search committee, but said she was involved in creating the position at Emerson, and will meet with candidates throughout the hiring process.

Kelsey Buckley, a junior performing arts major, is part of both Emerson Stopping Sexual Assault and Kappa Gamma Chi’s Emerald Empowerment, a group working to create a culture of consent on campus by educating students about the importance of consensual sexual behavior. Buckley said a sexual assault prevention and response advocate is necessary for the college.

“Human resources and human contact are really paramount when someone has experienced sexual assault,” said Buckley.

Spears said sexual assault prevention and response advocates are becoming increasingly common at universities and colleges. She said Emerson learned about sexual assault survivor advocacy programs and professionals from Dartmouth College and Boston College.

“It’s a really important position,” said Spears. “It provides a point of reference and ensures that the services a college offers are easily accessed. It also provides clarity for anybody who is affected by sexual assault — for the survivor, and the friends and family.”

On Dec. 2, Amelio hosted an open session in the multipurpose room of Piano Row to solicit students’ opinions about what qualities they’d like to see in a sexual assault prevention and response advocate.

Spears said she hopes this person will be someone Emerson students can trust and respect, and someone who is compassionate, caring, and who can navigate the institution with ease.

“Advocates are well skilled at helping survivors take their power back,” said Spears.

The Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate program is a group of volunteer student and faculty advocates who have been trained to give information and support to Emerson students who have experienced sexual assault, sexual violence, or intimate violence.

Members received 15 hours of training from the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, sexual assault nurse examiners from local Boston hospitals, the Emerson Police, the Boston area police sexual assault unit, and Jackson. The names of the advocates will be published on a website the group is still developing, said Harrison.

Advocates will take turns answering a help line to provide immediate support from Thursday night to Sunday night, similar to the Boston Rape Crisis Center’s system, said Harrison. They will walk survivors through the options they can take after experiencing sexual assault, she said.

“The most important thing for someone who has been sexually assaulted is to have control and options,” said Harrison. “The control of their own body has been taken away from them, so it’s important that during the whole process of helping someone through sexual assault experiences they are able to control what happens.”

Willie Burnley, a sophomore writing, literature, and publishing major, said college administrations should provide security and guidance to sexual assault survivors, not heighten the already stressful and strenuous experience. Nadkarni said although she is happy and grateful Emerson has created the new professional position and volunteer advocacy group, she has mixed feelings.

“Emerson wants to do better. This is the minimum, this is what the school’s meant to be doing,” said Nadkarni. “I hope that survivors in the future have the support system that I didn’t have.”